Teenagers are becoming more moral but less religious, according to a new study released by one of Canada’s most respected sociologists.
The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change & Choice is the title of the latest book by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist with the University of Lethbridge. It is based on a survey of 4,746 high school students aged 15 – 19 that he conducted in 2008.
Friendship and freedom
Asked what they found “very important,” the Millennials — as teenagers in this age bracket are called — responded emphatically: friendship (86 percent) and freedom (85 percent). These values rated higher than a comfortable life (75 percent), a good education (73 percent), success (73 percent), family life (67 percent), money (44 percent), looks (40 percent) and popularity (16 percent). They also ranked much higher than did spirituality (27 percent) and involvement in a religious group (13 percent).
Along with these values, Millennials also demonstrated that they hold a number of “traditional” moral values. Eighty-four percent said trust is “very important,” and 81 percent said honesty is. Millennials also value humour (75 percent), concern for others (65 percent), politeness (64 percent), forgiveness (60 percent) and working hard (55 percent).
Nonetheless, almost two-thirds of Millennials said that “what’s right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion.” When asked what they based their own moral values on, 43 percent said “how I feel at the time,” and seven percent said “a personal decision.” Sixteen percent cited their parents’ views, three percent said their friends, and only 10 percent based their moral decisions on “religion” — slightly below the 12 percent who said their moral views were based on “nothing.”
“Where the relativism comes in,” Bibby writes, “is not with respect to the value itself, but in how it is applied.” Eighty-one percent of Millennials valued honesty, which is not far off the 95 percent of those born before 1946 who value honesty. However, when the Millennials were asked what they would do if they were walking away from a sales counter and realized the salesperson had given them $10 more than they were supposed to receive, only 38 percent said they would return the money (compared to 90 percent of those born before 1946).
This, however, does not mean Millennials are not acting morally. From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of teens who drink alcohol declined from 78 percent to 71 percent, the percentage who smoke dropped from 37 percent to 22 percent, the percentage who use marijuana or hashish dropped from 37 percent to 31 percent, and the percentage who never have sex rose from 51 percent to 56 percent. In fact, the study claims, teens are having sex less frequently than seniors. The April 13 issue of Maclean’s magazine responded to Bibby’s findings by dubbing Millennials the “tame” generation.
Teens have not, however, fully embraced traditional values. Seventy-two percent of Millennials said they approved of sex before marriage “when people love each other”; but that is down from 82 percent in 2000 and 87 percent in 1992. Similarly, 44 percent approve of homosexual relations and accept them, and another 28 percent disapprove but accept them; however, that level is lower than the approval rate among Baby Boomers (people who were born between 1946 and 1965).
Bibby suggests Millennials’ moral values may be partly the result of lingering religious teaching. “God and religious groups may have eclipsed somewhat from their lives, but they have left huge shadows,” he writes.
Who needs organized religion?
Millennials have inherited trends established by their grandparents and their parents — particularly a trend away from organized religion.
In the 1950s, more than 60 percent of Canadians attended a Christian church weekly. In the 21st century, less than 30 percent do. Conservative Protestants (evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Christian Reformed, etc.) have held steady at about eight percent of the population; but there have been very significant declines among mainline Protestants (United, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans), and among Roman Catholics.
However, while many older Canadians “indicate that they have little use for organized religion,” many “are quick to say that they are spiritual or interested in spirituality,” writes Bibby. Put another way: while organized religion has been declining among Boomers and post-Boomers, “God has continued to do well in the polls.” Even though they rarely attend church, many Canadians have continued to identify with a Christian church and to say they believe in God.
While interest in organized religion continues to decline among Millennials, “this downward spiral… is showing signs of ending,” Bibby says. “A theistic comeback could be in the works.”
Monthly church attendance by teens “has remained stable” and has even increased slightly from 32 percent in 1992 to 33 percent in 2008. Moreover, says Bibby, “the majority of Canadian teenagers who are actively involved in religious groups are claiming that their involvement is both important and gratifying.”
While only 13 percent of Millennials said religion is “very important,” 68 percent of Millennials who attend church at least monthly said that involvement is “important.” And 59 percent of those who attend monthly said they are receiving a high level of enjoyment from their involvement. This level of enjoyment is markedly higher than a generation ago, and even rises to 75 percent among conservative Protestants.
A growing chasm
On the other hand, there may be a “growing polarization between teenagers who are actively involved in religious groups and those who are not.”
Since 1984, the proportion of teenagers who never attended services has risen from 28 percent to 47 percent. Furthermore, among this group, God is no longer “doing well in the polls.” While two-thirds of Millennials are convinced God exists, agnosticism and atheism are also significant: 16 percent are convinced God does not exist; and 17 percent “don’t think so.”
This is taking the previous trend to the next stage. While Boomers and their children tended to move “from decisiveness about belief in God to tentative belief or increasing agnosticism,” Millennials are moving “from tentativeness to agnosticism, and from agnosticism to atheism,” says Bibby.
This does not mean Millennials are closed to the idea of God and church. In 2000, 37 percent of teens attending church less than once a month and 58 percent of those attending once a month or more said, “I’d be open to more involvement with religious groups, if I found it to be worthwhile.” In 2008, those figures had risen to 38 percent and 62 percent.
“Most Canadian teens still want God and church around for the most important occasions in their lives,” says Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest who is one of two commentators whose reflections on Bibby’s findings are included within the book. (The other co-author is Sarah Russell, an RCMP community relations officer.) Eighty-four percent of Millennials still want a religious wedding, 83 percent want a religious funeral, and 65 percent some kind of religious rites for their children, such as baptism or child dedication.
Faith inspires goodness
People “can be good without God,” but his findings reveal that Millennials with a definite belief in God “are consistently more likely than teens who hold an atheistic position to place a high value on traits such as trust, honesty, concern for others and working hard,” says Bibby.
The reason, says Bibby, is obvious: “Ideas invariably have social origins. They don’t arise out of nowhere, nor do they typically originate with creative individuals. Rather, for the most part, they are learned from other people — parents, friends, teachers, authors, television, the Internet and so on.”
One of Bibby’s findings is that 95 percent of Millennials who definitely believe in God also believe this supreme being “expects us to be good to one another.”
Rolheiser suggests there is a price to be paid “once we no longer drink very directly from the waters of faith and religion.”
However, says Bibby, that particular well is far from dry. Commenting on why religious issues always raise the most comments in the media, he asks: “If religion doesn’t matter, why does it matter so much?”